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Life At Ten: Passing the buck like a hot potato

Last week the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission released its final report on their investigation into the Life At Ten incident at this year's Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs.  The full report of the summary and findings, along with the stewards reports, interview summaries, and analysis of wagering patterns, is almost a couple hundred pages long and all of it indicates that the incident, while unfortunate and avoidable, was free of any intentional wrongdoing or deceitful acts.  Sadly, the absence of intentional criminal conduct doesn't help to alleviate the feeling that this was a situation that could have easily been avoided.

The entire report can be found at the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission's website. (Link)

While the report presents a great deal of helpful information, the conclusions and recommendations stop well short of where they need to be to prevent this type of incident from occurring in the future and, in some respects, they seems to go off in the wrong direction.

Here are some of my thoughts after reading the report and all appendices:

-This whole affair is a game of "pass-the-buck" and "it's not my responsibility" -

  • Todd Pletcher notices an issue, tells his jockey, but doesn't ever inform a track official of his concerns prior to the race.  He later says that once the horse leaves the paddock, "it's out of my hands..."
  • The agent for Johnny V. states that if the jock had brought his issues to the attention of the vets at the gate (which he didn't do), Life At Ten wouldn't have been scratched anyway because only lame horses, not un-interested horses, are scratched. 
  • None of the vets noticed anything seriously wrong with Life At Ten (lameness, etc.), so they didn't think they had any reason to act.
  • The stewards apparently didn't feel they had enough information to pass on to the on-track personnel and in their report suggest that it's not their job to investigate; it's the job of the trainer and/or jockey to bring the matter to their attention.  According to the KHRC's report, there was disagreement among the stewards as to whether any action should be taken.  
  • The owner, who owns one race horse (Life At Ten), and does not manage Life At Ten's affairs, and had never seen her run live before the Breeders' Cup, publicly blasts the stewards following the race, claiming the horse should have scratched.  She tells the KHRC she believed that because that's what she read on the internet.
  • The KHRC admits that the gate veterinarians are not required to provide any proactive investigations into the status of each entry.  In other words, they stand there and watch but nobody asks any of the jocks how their horses are doing. 

Seriously, can anybody else involved in this incident claim less responsibility?  It's a shame, it truly is.  I don't write that as a bitter gambler who lost money on Life At Ten (I didn't have a dime on her).  I say that as a race fan that expects that those involved in the sport to do more than idly sit back and wait for someone else to bring matters to their attention.  

In my opinion, all of these individuals were both right and wrong in the way the acted during this whole affair - nobody saw anything significantly wrong with Life At Ten and nobody blatantly broke the rules.  But at the same time, at one point or another, almost every person involved knew something was up with this filly and nobody took the final, necessary step to resolve the issue.  They all left it up to someone else.  

I don't think there's a bad guy, there just wasn't someone willing to step-up and take charge.  And that's disappointing because the horses rely on the humans to protect their interests.

-The most dead-on accurate statement from the KHRC's report was the following:

"Many of the participants seemed to be waiting for someone else to take action."

Horse racing deserves better than that.  It's bad enough that the sport's regulatory authorities allow trainers to continue to hold a license after decades of rules violations and suspensions.  It's something else when those closely involved in the safety of the equine athletes wait for someone else to do the job.

-What's the point of having vets positioned all over the track if all they don't proactively solicit information from jockeys or trainers?  Sure, they can detect signs of lameness but they look at thousands of thoroughbreds in a year, are they close enough to the situation to detect small abnormalities in a horse's demeanor?  Probably not.    

Of course, what's the point of having a room full of stewards if they don't call down to their vets and say, "take a look at the #4 when it comes to the gate.  We're getting reports that she might not be 100%."  

-The public spotlight of this incident was the direct result of ESPN's pre-race interview between Jerry Baily and John Velazquez, and interviews and conversations that took place after that interview.  At one point, ESPN claimed that Life At Ten was going to be looked at by the vets before she loaded into the gate at the request of the stewards.  This was apparently an incorrect report on their part due to a misunderstanding by the producer, one that they never corrected in the future.

ESPN should have corrected its report in the days following the Breeders' Cup.  If you mis-report information (and according to the investigation, they did), then you have a responsibility to correct the mis-information when it is brought to your attention regardless of the period of time that passes between the report and the correction.  And in this situation, their reporting was a main reason why people knew about what was going on and were upset about it.

However, just because ESPN mis-reported a portion of the situation that does not imply that they shouldn't report it at all.  This leads me to my final thought....

-One of the main conclusions of the report is that jurisdictions should reconsider allowing trainers and jockeys to be interviewed by the media prior to a race, suggesting that this whole incident would have been avoided if Johnny V. had simply not said anything to ESPN.  Here are the relevant passages from the report:

Industry groups such as RCI, Jockeys' Guild, The Jockey Club, TOBA, HBPA and AAEP may consider discussing the following:

Formulation of a jockey responsibility rule - 

  •  Weighing benefits of post parade jockey interview versus the duty of the KHRC to protect the safety and integrity of the sport.
  • Consider a recommendation that the Jockeys' Guild provide media training to its members.
  • Consider the impact of post parade jockey interviews on wagering integrity.
  • Consider the role of owners and trainers in deciding whether to allow their jockeys to grant a pre-race interview.
  • If recommendation is made that jockeys should not be permitted to speak to the media after they leave the jockey's room, 810 KAR 1:009 Section 11(2) will need to be amended. See Appendix A.  (Emphasis added)

I can't believe the KHRC would actually print those recommendations in their report.  Seriously, this passage is akin to a "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" philosophy.  Instead of coming up with real solutions (like pro-active vets that talk to the jockeys/trainers before the race), the Commission decides it's best to take steps to make sure nobody even hears about these incidents.  As if the lack of a pre-race ESPN interview would have made everyone ignore the fact that Life At Ten couldn't see the leaders as they crossed the finish line.

Personally, I could care less about pre-race jockey interviews since most provide little important information to the bettors.  It's rare that you hear an interview where the jockey doesn't think his horse is doing great and has a shot  to win.  Lather.  Rinse.  Repeat.

The problem with the KHRC's recommendations is the suggestion that silencing trainers and jockeys before a race will "cover-up" any problems like this in the future, thereby preventing them from becoming public.  Is that really the direction the racing industry needs to move towards?

Steven Crist at the Daily Racing Form summarized the absurdity of this position best in a recent column:

"The racing commission's report takes an unfortunate turn in its suggestion that muzzling the participants is a solution to the problem. It is any jockey or trainer's right to decline a media interview in the minutes leading up to a race, but forbidding such contact would send a completely wrong message - that everything would have been fine if Velazquez had kept his mouth shut and just shrugged off a mysterious non-effort after the race.

The problem is that something was amiss with Life at Ten before the race and nothing was done, not that this became public knowledge."

The spot doesn't need less transparency, it needs total transparency.  And a situation similar to the Life At Ten incident can be avoided in the future not by banning media interviews, but by simply ensuring that those involved with the horses do their job to protect the animals, if necessary.  

I've written this before (but I'll do so again), I think there's an easy-to-implement protocol tracks could use to avoid a situation like this: pro-active on-track vets that ask every trainer and vet prior to the race if their horse is okay and if they feel the horse should race.  Under that protocol, the conversation is at least started, the line of communication is opened and information is solicited.  Instead of waiting for someone to act, require the parties to communicate.